Saturday, November 08, 2014

Laymen's Guide to the Thirty-Nine Articles Article 31 - Of the oneOblation of Christ finished upon the Cross.

The offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone. Wherefore, the sacrifices of Masses, in the which it was commonly said, that the Priest did offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, were blasphemous fables, and dangerous deceits.

De unica Christi oblatione in Cruce perfecta

Oblatio Christi, semel facta, perfecta est redemptio, propitiatio, et satisfactio pro omnibus peccatis totius mundi, tam originalibus quam actualibus; neque praeter illam unicam est ulla alia prop peccatis expiatio. Unde missarum sacrificia, quibus vulgo dicebatur sacerdotem offerre Christum in remissionem poenae aut culpae pro vivis defunctis, blasphema figmenta sunt et pernitiosae imposturae.

Archbishop Peter Robinson
Article 31 takes aim at two favourite targets of the Reformers; popular misconceptions concerning the Church's teaching on the Mass, and the notion that anything can be added to what the Book of Common Prayer refers to as his 'one oblation once offered.' However, it should be noted that the Article is quite narrow in its focus and does not condemn the notion that the Lord's Supper is a feast upon the one true sacrifice, but that of the "sacrifices of masses."

In crude terms, popular piety had, from the early Middles Ages onwards, had a nasty tendency to treat the Eucharist not so much as an amnesis of Christ's saving work, but as a particularly powerful form of magic. Local councils had to ban practices such as offering Mass to procure the death of an enemy in order to preserve some sort of Christian decency to the use of the Sacrament, but this same impulse finds a new outlet in later centuries in the cult of the dead.

From the 1200s onward, it had been an increasingly common practice for men and women to leave money to pay for Masses to be offered to ease the passage of their souls through Purgatory. Many of these Chantry bequests were for a given number of years, others were suppose to be perpetual, which in the case of England ended in 1545 when Henry VIII - who you will remember was no Protestant - ended the practice. Well, ended it apart from the royal chantries at St George's Chapel, Windsor! Lurking at the back of these chantry bequests was a notion akin to the idea that each Mass had a definite value in terms of both remitting actual sin, and also taking time off Purgatory. For this reason, the Article focuses on this rather crude and simplistic understanding of Eucharistic sacrifice, rightly describing the notion that the Eucharistic sacrifice is a piece of "magic" or spiritual currency with which God can be appeased or bargained with as a blasphemous fable.

However, I would be doing you a disservice if I did not point out that the Article only condemns the idea that each Mass is individually a sacrifice with a definite propitiatory value. This leaves other understandings of 'Eucharistic Sacrifice' open to us.

Firstly, there is the idea of the Mass as being a commemoration of Christ's one true sacrifice upon the Cross. However, the NT Greek conception of commemoration is not so much one of remembering a past event which remains firmly in the past, but one of bringing the past into the present. This implies, very firmly, that when the Eucharist is offered, there is a sense in which we step out of time into the eternal where the one sacrifice of Christ is an ever present reality.

Secondly, we have to consider that offering of 'ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and lively sacrifice unto thee." This offering of ourselves to God through the Eucharist should serve as a reminder to us that Christ's wonderful mercy towards us in His sacrifice requires a meaningful response from us - dedicating ourselves in a sacrificial way to God's praise and service.                     
  Thirdly, there is the sacrifice of thanksgiving, from which the secondary name for the Communion Service - 'Eucharist' - derives. This idea of giving thanks by celebrating the Eucharist is one of the oldest ideas in Eucharistic theology, and can be seen in the 'gave thanks' clause in the words of Institution. Although this directly refers to the Jewish blessing of bread and wine, which Our Lord took and reinterpreted when He instituted the sacrament, it also indicated the importance of thanksgiving element to the Eucharist. The phrase 'sacrificium laudes' occurs many times in the Early Fathers when they discuss the Mass.

We can see from the above considerations that the Reformers were far from ruling out the notion of sacrifice altogether, but they were very careful in how they define the concept as it relates to the Eucharist. It is quite clear that there is no Christian sacrifice than that of Christ upon the Cross, and that the Mass is not a sacramental re-enactment of Calvary, but they do accept that it both a living memorial of the one true sacrifice, a sacrifice of our service to God through Christ Jesus, and also a sacrifice of our thanksgiving for Christ's saving work.

Fr. Robert Hart
The double plural in "sacrifices of Masses" has been explained above by Archbishop Robinson. Frankly, what the Article condemns is not Catholic teaching, and yes, not the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church in this day and age. What it was was a corrupt practice that grew in use during the Medieval era. In truth, we can say that there is only one Eucharistic sacrifice, no matter how many times it is celebrated.

Let us now turn to the theology of Christ's one sufficient sacrifice. The scriptures attest to it clearly.

"Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us: Nor yet that he should offer himself often, as the high priest entereth into the holy place every year with blood of others; For then must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment: So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation...But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; From henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool. For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified. (Hebrews 9:24-28, 10:12-14)."

It is, therefore, error to speak of "the sacrifices of Masses," in the double plural, "in the which it was commonly said, that the Priest did offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt." Offering Christ again is neither possible nor necessary. The opening of our own Anglican Canon of Consecration ties Christ's one sacrifice into the Eucharistic sacrifice, or as our Book of Common Prayer puts it, as a synonymous thought, our "sacrifice  of praise and thanksgiving."

"Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world..."

This also draws from the First Epistle of St. John: 

"My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world (I John 2:1,2)."

We learn clearly from the Scriptures, therefore, that Christ offered Himself once, and that His sacrifice is for the whole world. In a mystical way, our celebration of Holy Communion together as the Church (at least two or three gathered together) brings that one sacrifice into the present by our offering of worship.

"When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost (John 19:30)."

It takes three English words to translate one Greek word. Teleo (τελέω) is thus rendered, "It is finished." Here a very significant historical fact must be noted. Greek (not Latin) was the Lingua Franca, or universal language in the Roman Empire of Christ's time. The word Teleo was written on receipts to show that a debt had been fully paid, and nothing more was owed. Christ's utterance could be interpreted into English, "It is paid in full" without any lack of fidelity to the original text; for so it was commonly understood when St. John wrote this word, possibly interpreting an Aramaic word, or possibly quoting Jesus own use of the Greek word itself. 

The theological meaning is clear. Nothing can be added to Christ's one sacrifice, nor need anything be added. It is paid in full, and so "He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world." The whole debt of humans sin was paid by His one sacrifice of Himself, for all peoples for all time.

Here we must not close without speaking of the Person of Christ. To suggest that anything is needed in addition to His one sacrifice of Himself, or that anything additional can be added, be it "sacrifices of Masses," "merits" of saints, indulgences, use of relics, etc., is to deny His Divine nature. The simple words of Charles Wesley come to mind: "Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou my God shouldst die for me?" If, with St. Thomas, we know the risen Christ to be "My Lord and my God (John 20:28)," acknowledging that He is One with the Father and the Holy Spirit in all eternity, "Light of Light, very God of very God," how can we fail to believe in the complete sufficiency of His human death as the one perfect Atonement? So, this is a matter of orthodox Christology.

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